Quebec police will begin handing out fines to anyone who isn't wearing a mask when required under public health regulations, Premier François Legault says.
The province also moved to ban karaoke in bars after one event at a Quebec City bar led to an outbreak of more than 80 cases.
The new fines will apply across the province, but Legault said authorities will target regions classified as "yellow" under the government's new colour-coded COVID-19 alert system.
"There's a trend we do not like here," Legault said Thursday. "We cannot accept that a few irresponsible individuals put at risk the entire population of Quebec."
The new enforcement measures go into effect Saturday. People will be fined if they do not wear a mask in indoor public spaces where distancing is not possible.
While business owners already faced fines if they did not properly enforce the government's mask regulations, individuals faced no consequences if they refused to wear one until now.
In a statement, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said it welcomes the new fines, as it means the onus is no longer entirely on business owners.
Legault said the government is implementing these stricter penalties because of a recent spike in cases.
For several days in a row, the province has seen a seven-day moving average above 20 cases per million, a threshold the government has said it does not want to see crossed.
A region's alert level is based upon three criteria: the epidemiological situation, the rate of transmission and the capacity of the region's health-care system.
There are currently four regions in the yellow tier: Quebec City, the Eastern Townships, the Outaouais and Laval. The province's other regions, including Montreal, are in the lowest tier.
Montreal's public health director, Dr. Mylène Drouin, said Wednesday that her city could soon move from "green" to "yellow," as well, given the increase in cases in recent weeks.
Fines are expected to range between $400 and $6,000, but the exact amount will be confirmed by Public Security MInister Geneviève Guilbault in the coming days.
Health Minister Christian Dubé said the government is also considering imposing fines for failing to follow other public health recommendations, such as physical distancing.
"We're going to be looking at what we can do," said Dubé. "It's a lot more difficult to intervene in a private evening than it is to intervene for example in a bar or in a restaurant."
Social gatherings a concern
Transmission at gatherings with family and friends remains a major concern among public health experts.
"What we've been seeing in recent weeks is that the source of a lot of these cases are coming from small parties or people that are not respecting the basic guidelines," Dr. Cécile Tremblay, a microbiologist and infectious disease specialist at the CHUM, said in an interview.
She said the new regulation makes sense as it might give those who aren't currently respecting public health guidelines an extra push to do so.
"We have to target the people who aren't respecting the guidelines because it puts those who are respecting them at risk," she said.
In an interview with Radio-Canada, Montreal Police Brotherhood president Yves Francoeur said officers will use their judgment to determine whether someone is purposely disregarding the regulations on masks, or whether they simply forgot to wear one.
"Issuing fines of hundreds of dollars is not pleasant, but unfortunately I think we've gotten to the point where we need to make irresponsible people understand that their actions are dangerous to the rest of society," said Francoeur.
Legault said Thursday that he does not expect another shutdown in the province, even if case numbers get worse.
"We're not going towards confinement like what we saw in the spring. Let's be very clear on that," he said.
Regions at a yellow alert level, however, may have some restrictions on the kinds of extracurricular activities allowed when they are set to resume on Sept. 14.
He said health authorities will also continue to keep an eye on bars, putting in place restrictions beyond the ban on karaoke, but that the majority of them have been following guidelines.
More testing sites coming
Quebec's public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda said the measures to contain the spread of the virus in schools appear to be working. He said there have been 118 cases recorded across the province, but no major outbreaks.
"We have not actually demonstrated there is a big transmission in schools," he said.
"We think that the measures we put in place are working actually."
Since school began late last month, there has also been an increase in the demand for testing, leading to long lines at some centres.
Dubé said the government will be opening testing sites shortly, and will look for ways to make it quicker for people to obtain their results electronically.
He also said the province is looking at restructuring the testing system in a way that would allow more people to make appointments ahead of time, instead of relying so heavily on walk-in sites.
WATCH | Quebec's testing alert system, explained: